Stories of bravery, camaraderie and tragedy of the 72 brave Dutch soldiers buried in Hong Kong

„The key is to realize that the 72 Dutch buried in Hong Kong’s Tsai Wan War Cemetery are not related to the Hong Kong War, but to lesser-known engagements and events during the Pacific War,” said historian and historian Justin Ho. Author of the study.

Remarkable stories of bravery, camaraderie and tragic irony emerged for soldiers in unimaginably difficult circumstances.

Tsai Wan War Cemetery in Hong Kong is the final resting place of 1,528 Commonwealth soldiers who died during the Second World War, including British, Indian and Canadian service members in the Battle of Hong Kong and the POW camps that followed. Photo: Justin Ho

Soldiers who died in Hainan were captured during the Battle of Ambon (January 30 – February 3, 1942), a Japanese offensive that captured the island of Ambon and its strategic air base within days. Captured Allied soldiers were taken to Hachow POW camp in Hainan.

In one of the most notable stories from Hainan, a group of six soldiers escaped from the camp and attempted to flee the island to mainland China. The group – Bout, Brussel, Koomans, Navest, Soeters and Wisman – bribed a Chinese man with a Red Cross package to take them from Hainan Island.

According to a Dutch newspaper interview with Boute’s son-in-law, the smuggler betrayed the soldiers to the Japanese, who recaptured them and returned them to the camp. The soldiers are thought to have been hanged for attempting to escape, but the exact details of their fate are unknown.

“Escape from Hainan Island was difficult. „This is why by 1945, fugitives would go to Chinese guerrilla-occupied areas on Hainan Island for help and better chances of survival,” Ho told the Post.

Most of the deaths in Hacho were not as dramatic as the escape attempt, and their fate was primarily a result of the appalling living conditions.

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Japanese soldiers restricted POWs’ food, vitamins and medicine. They did not provide clothing, and fighters occasionally stole the personal belongings of POWs. On top of this, the Japanese forced prisoners of war into forced labor between 1942-1945, building roads and airfields in Hainan.

This poor treatment – ​​combined with rampant insects, flies and mosquitoes – led to the spread of disease, and 55 of the Dutch soldiers died of dysentery or beriberi.

„In my research, Dutch POWs suffered the same hardships as many Allied POWs — brutal treatment by the Japanese, forced labor, malnutrition and tropical diseases,” Ho said.

At Hacho two soldiers stood out for their bravery and duty. Hendrik von Barneveld and Johannes Rainier Odegergen would die as the war ended, missing the liberation of the camp by a few months. But before they died, they helped their comrades successfully escape, serving as watchmen.

„One of the POW escapees, AJ van Metch, later published his diary and acknowledged their brave efforts,” Ho said.

In September 1945, the Hachow camp was liberated and the remaining POWs were first sent to Sanya Air Base in Hainan for treatment before being transferred to Sydney, Australia or Hong Kong.

Job von Belsen escaped from a Tokyo POW camp, but died in a plane crash on his way back home. „Koenigrijk der Nederlanden” means „Kingdom of the Netherlands”. Photo: Justin Ho

As for the other 17 Dutch soldiers, the Japanese captured them during various conflicts in the Pacific theater. In Taiwan, soldiers faced conditions similar to those in Hainan, where they died from disease and malnutrition.

Only one Dutch soldier, Jacob van Steenwijk, died in Hong Kong while in captivity. He was captured after escaping a Japanese attack on his submarine and was interrogated for seven days in Vietnam.

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Van Steenwijk was then transported to Hong Kong, where he spent the rest of his days between North Point POW Camp and Sham Shui Po POW Camp.

Another soldier who died in Hong Kong was Fokke Algera, who died shortly after Japan’s surrender. Another soldier’s POW diary suggested Algera died of refeeding syndrome, or eating too fast after being malnourished. However, the details of Algera’s incarceration are vague, and the truth of his story remains murky.

A particularly tragic story is the fate of four soldiers who were captured in Java, Indonesia, then transferred to a POW camp in Tokyo, where they survived until the end of the war.

After the liberation, the soldiers were sent back to the Philippines, but stormy weather caused their plane to crash into Taiwan’s Haiyan mountain range, killing all 25 on board. One of the soldiers, Job Van Belsen, kept a meticulous diary and expressed his excitement to be back home with his family.

Despite little connection with the city, Dutch soldiers are buried in Hong Kong because of its colonial history. When Japan surrendered control of the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia), the United States handed over post-war administrative responsibilities of the country to the British, so the British Army was responsible for rescuing prisoners of war and locating and identifying war graves.

„Therefore, it is not surprising that at the time, the British treated other Allied war dead as their own and resettled them in neighboring colonies such as Hong Kong and Singapore,” Ho said.

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Today, the memory of the veterans is commemorated every May 4th in Hong Kong, and memorial sites have been erected in some of the veterans’ hometowns.

„Continuing such traditions and efforts will help us understand this forgotten part of history,” Ho said.

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